Keywords: Fascism, post-modernism, Nietzsche, politics, philosophy

Title: The Seduction of Unreason

Author: Richard Wolin

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN: 0691114641


Richard Wolin describes his book as a work of 'intellectual archaeology', which aptly summarises this exploration of the ideological roots of a number of key post-modernist thinkers. He shows, quite convincingly, that some of the core ideas of post-modernist thinking - which is broadly considered to be coming from the Left - are explicitly derived from thinkers normally considered to be from the Right.

He focuses on a set of key individuals - Bataille, Blanchard and Jung - and explores the parallels between their ideas and those of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Junger and others. These parallels, Wolin argues, are not accidental, the influence of these conservative thinkers - all of whom reacted against the universalist claims of the enlightenment - are very direct. The books draws out these influences, showing how the core anti-rational, anti-democratic and profoundly reactionary ideas espoused by Nietzsche, Heidegger and others were consciously echoed by Bataille, Blanchard, Jung and their ideological progeny.

However, Wolin is not interested in merely proving guilt by association. Rather he is interested in the ideas themselves and their impact in contemporary academia and political discourse. The fact that the ideological underpinnings of French post-modernists share common historical roots with fascism would be nothing more than a historical detail were it not for the fact that these ideas are influential outside of the rarified atmosphere of French universities.

At first glance the apparent rejectionist tone of post-modernism, with its profound distrust of language and power, is clearly of the radical Left. However, at heart this rejectionism amounts to a rejection of reason, a distrust of all political activity and ultimately seeks refuge in identity. Here again the parallels between the proto-Nazi ideas of blood and soil and the modern fetishisation of 'culture' and 'ethnic identity' are obvious. Multi-culturalism as a political ideology is both divisive and anti-democratic, as Wolin himself clearly outlines in the latter sections of the book.

It should be no surprise that the identity politics championed by sections of the Left have now been adopted wholesale by the far-Right. Where once European neo-fascists spoke the language of 'white supremacy' and outright racism, they now speak of 'national and cultural identity'. In terms of rhetoric there is little that divides the modern 'multi-culturalist' of the Left from the smarter of the politicians from the far-Right.

Wolin makes the point that in academia itself the post-Modernists are in retreat, not least in France itself. However, the ripples created by Foucault, Baudrillard and the rest continue to spread beyond the confines of academic journals. Post-modernist thinking is pervasive. It flourishes in departments of education, in literary theory, in government departments and in left-wing movements throughout the world.

The core enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity have been rejected by many who are nominally on the Left. The economic arguments may have been won by free marketeers, but that leaves culture as the principal battle-ground of ideas. And here the rejection of reason and a faith in identity have become core principles for many who describe themselves as Leftist. Instead of faith in science, reason and a belief in progress we have political correctness, identity politics and self-imposed cultural barriers.

That this depressing state of affairs is partly derived from post-modernist thinkers should be no surprise, that much of it derives ultimately from reactionary and proto-fascist philosophers will surprise many. Wolin's book does a great service in unmasking the seductive but apparent radicalism that underlies the rejection of reason that is post-Modernism.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published xx 2006